by Robert Gould
Inspired by Robert Browning’s dramatic monologue, “My Last Duchess“.
Transgressive and blessed; my life was boiled down to two points of interest. There is no breeze to shift the dusty stock that remains six feet deep under soil, a neighbourhood of thirsty roots and blind, lumbering larvae. But my legacy is not restricted to a wedge of tombstone; to this day servants give pause as their eyes meet a set resting in taut lids, chancing flagellations from impatient masters – all in the name of tasting my thrills from a painting on the wall.
My dear Duke of Ferrara has the distinction of being the first man to share a chamber with me, and on the night of our nuptials I sat perched on his bed like a pinioned bird. My eyes traced kidney-shaped emblems of iridescent mosaic arcing above chalky pillars. My husband emerged, his naked gut groped by candlelight. From darkness the rest of him followed, still tense and bloated from that evening’s feast.
“And still my hunger persists…” his stroll toward me seemed to say, and I welcomed it. Surely the singular advantage of this requisite union was to be our congress? My Duke may not have been in his prime when his path crossed mine, but all around the palace were memories of his glory, and it was likely my adolescent heart fell for a portrait rather than the man himself. He was late for our first acquaintance, and I recall my father pacing the withdrawing-room, decrying the pitiful manners of my Duke. But I waited patiently, gazing upon a preservation of his halcyon days as I did so. His lips were plump but rigid, his skin was as white as milk, with a chin and cheekbones set to pierce its glutinous film. When my Duke finally did appear, all I could recognise were hard, black eyes that promised me embers of the young man rendered in oil paint.
My Duke also has the distinction of being the first man to strike me. We wed in the summer, and on that balmy evening he lashed a fleshy palm across my right eye and pressed hard, dragging it slowly across my face, blending the knob of my nose into my cheek. He panted as he sat on the bed’s edge, grasping repeatedly at his phallus, as violently as one might try to catch a goldfish from the surface of a pond.
“You were supposed to be different,” he cried to me as he raced past pillars that mocked him with their stiffness. He was swallowed back into the darkness.
For some time after we continued to occupy a bed together, but never again did he touch me. With that being said, even in the expansive landscape of his bed, I could not evade his hot, prickly body, or the moist air it pocketed underneath our weighty sheets. It was impossible to slumber, although my Duke did arise at dawn, leaving me to snatch gasps of sleep until it was time to wake for breakfast.
In spite of all this, I still thought myself a fortunate woman. The palace was a pleasure to be confined to; so deep was the blood red of the carpet that lined the corridors, so teeming with life were the pastoral frescos that stole studied looks at one of our many banquets, and so fat and decadent was my wardrobe, that there moments where I would beckon my handmaiden to prick my wrist so as to be sure I was not dreaming.
But I did not know true beauty until I met my paramour. The son of a visiting Italian duke, he approached me at our palace’s winter ball while my Duke squatted merrily with his intoxicated squadron. In a corner of the hall, as happier partners danced underneath a chandelier descending from the ceiling in a golden downpour, he thumbed the pearls that hung around my neck.
“These are not enough for a woman of your beauty,” he said bitterly. He peered across the hall as my husband sweat and bellowed drunken demands at his servants, and then looked back at my neck.
“Do you know how a pearl is made, Duchess?” I shook my head. Perhaps naïvely, his blue-eyed stare assured me of his knowledge of marine life. His voice was soft, but captivating in its earnestness. “It is a way of combatting an irritant. The creature senses an unwanted presence, and so forms a pearl to trap and eradicate it.”
I watched my Duke as this process was outlined to me. I watched him spew on his doublet, and frowned as he struck a servant gently attempting to make him appear presentable.
“How do you feel about that?” He nodded in the direction of my Duke, who was now being escorted out by members of the cavalry. “How do you feel about something so fine materialising from such a threat?”
He slipped a finger in the loop of my pearls and pulled me towards him.
“You could be so happy, Duchess.”
At this I felt my eyes become wet, and there in the shadows I cried in this stranger’s embrace; all because I believed he could be right. I believed I could be happy.
The first time I awoke in a man’s arms, I knew that they could not have belonged to the Duke. I kissed my paramour half-awake and brought our clasped hands to my naked heart. I had never felt so contented. It was as if I had conquered not only the foreign land enrobing my body, but also the land I had come to know since birth; a world rife with rules that bound and humiliated me. I felt their bristled arms buckle and recede from my own as I fed my paramour a cherry from my lips, nourishing not only him, but also my soul.
It was a small room on the east wing of the palace that we had escaped to, and no one had noticed my diversion until the morning. I explained myself to the Duke, vowing upon my life that I had avoided his company that night so as not to compromise his comfort, and subsequently his recovery. He took it well enough, thanking me formally before dismissing me to continue his convalescence.
In his absence, my paramour and I had made the most of what remained of his visit. For a brief time, those dormant east wing corridors were our own personal paradise. I kissed him against walls, batting paintings to the floor in my passion for him. He loved in me in a manner I thought not to be possible, not with the life I had been given. I took pains to accept my fate as another privileged yet unfulfilled Duchess. But in his arms, I finally felt like a woman of nobility.
He promised to visit again within six weeks, complete with plans for my emancipation in tow. Again, I was compelled to believe him. I bid him and his father goodbye before the Duke, and appeared perfectly unaffected as I watched them exit the grounds. True to his word, my paramour returned to Ferrara after merely a month-long absence, but he was still a week late. Commands were given.
I died consoled. I died knowing I had lived more in our moments together than that perennially fatigued Duke of mine had his entire life. His only comparable moment of titillation was watching the last wisp air leave my body as my throat was crushed on a bed of cold tile.
What I will never know is why. Did he know of my infidelity when he directed the head of his squadron to my washroom, or had he simply become tired of me? Perhaps the answer no longer matters. Perhaps my victory is that the Duke still wanders his halls, contemplating the spot of joy upon my face that the artist was so careful to include. My final thoughts were consumed by it. A mere thought with the power to save a nine-hundred-year-old name. My husband and I were both weak; the Duke’s weakness obliterated life, an examination of my body proved that mine had created it.